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Who Is a Jewish Traitor?

In this politically heated season, some Jews are eager to label others Jews, including political leaders, as traitors; many more refuse to think in these terms altogether, finding the entire exercise distasteful. But we can’t afford either this rush to judgment or such easy dismissal of the challenge. Traitors endanger the core commitments by which a people identifies itself. To the extent that we as a community — and each of us individually — are unable to define Jewish treachery, we are unclear about what really matters to us.

To be sure, stipulating what counts as Jewish treachery is no easy task. The criteria are not obvious. Do intentions count? Are we talking about threats to Judaism or to the Jewish people (the ancient tricky distinction)? Is communal consensus determinate?

Let’s not waste time with the obvious. Prime ministers of Israel are not, as a few now proclaim, traitors to the Jewish people. Given their democratic election to office, they represent the views of at least a substantial portion of the citizenry and, therefore, no matter how ill advised you judge their policies, are not seditious by definition. So let us not get sidetracked into the associated legal labyrinth about din rodef, a person pursuing another to kill him, and din moser, an informer who betrays a Jew (or his property) to the enemy. Certainly these charges are not mere rhetoric: They bring with them a capital sentence and have led to an assassination. But nearly all rabbinical authorities have dismissed these pronouncements as wrongheaded and inane; in any case, neither rodef nor moser is equivalent to treason.

Other diversions should be deflected, as well. Disloyalty to traditional Judaism is not, if ever it was, the same as infidelity to the Jewish people. Ben-Gurion, Jabotinsky and Einstein might be heretics for their rejection of Orthodox belief, but no one (with a few emphatic exceptions) seriously deems them willful enemies of the Jewish nation. We can acknowledge, too, that traitors of all sorts often justify their perfidy as in the service of a higher cause, be it their community’s own purer goals or those of humanity at large. Not surprisingly, Mordechai Vanunu, a convert to Christianity who went public with confidential details about Israel’s atomic program, insists, “Five million consider me a traitor, but 6 billion see me as a hero.” (Alas, he’s probably more right than wrong in that assessment.)

Finally, let’s be clear that we are examining treachery, not self-loathing. “Juedische Selbsthass” is a modern term coined by Theodore Lessing in 1930, but self-hatred features in every subjugated ethnic group and owns a particularly long and unhappy history among Jews. Undoubtedly, self-hatred sometimes bleeds into something more pernicious. One thinks, for instance, of Walter Lippman, who wrote to the president of Harvard asking him to restrict the enrollment of Jews in light of “their many distressing and social habits,” and notoriously ignored the destruction of European Jewry in his reporting on World War II. But the distinction between self-denigration and genuine treachery must be preserved.

So what do Jews consider sacrosanct? What rock-bottom convictions, beyond physical survival, do they share across ideological divides such that violation by one of their own constitutes betrayal? Until recently, we might have posited the following three areas as inviolate.

  1. The Shoah — Along with the creation of Israel, the Holocaust is the pivotal event in modern Jewish history. To lend support to those who deny its horrors renders one an adversary of the Jews. Many thought, for example, that Noam Chomsky crossed that line with his introduction to a book by crackpot French Holocaust-denier Robert Faurisson, and in defending his contribution by appealing to the cause of free speech and claiming to see no antisemitic implications in denial of the existence of gas chambers, or even denial of the Holocaust. Few Jews would go this far. But as those war years recede, the impact of the Holocaust on the next generation’s Jewish consciousness is certainly fading. And pointedly, a growing number of Jews, particularly in academia, brazenly offer revisionist theories that reject the distinctiveness of the Shoah and its centrality to our Jewish narrative.

  2. Israel — The borders of appropriate Israeli policy always stretched far but never were endless. Whether on the far-right bank or the far left, Jews shared a steadfast fealty to the continuation of a Jewish State. Those who called for its disappearance were beyond the pale. But now we find polemicists who flaunt their Jewishness, proceed to argue for the dismantling the Jewish State and find themselves accepted as legitimate voices in the Jewish chorus of opinion. This is something new.

  3. Jews for Jesus — The loss of Jews to conversion has been part of the nation’s history from the get-go. Converts are not traitors but deserters; many avow their right to believe as they please. An apostate becomes a traitor when, as happened throughout the centuries, he devotes himself to making life difficult for his former co-religionists. Missionary Jews, too, focus their attentions on changing the religious life of Jews. They insist, of course, that their faith and practice is genuine Judaism, certainly more so than those of the secular majority of Jews. But in asserting the divinity of Jesus and attempting to persuade Jews to do likewise, Jews for Jesus become Jewish traitors. We witness now, however, a growing tolerance of different approaches to Judaism that allows even these evangelists a seat in the larger Jewish tent.

Perhaps you, as do I, think these longstanding sentiments still resonate as foundational in the Jewish community and find their erosion deeply saddening. Perhaps you would posit other pivotal, consensual concerns. True, if we cannot or will not recognize any commitment as vital, no one qualifies as a Jewish traitor. But then, by the same token, there is nothing essential to Jews worth defending.

And here we part company.

Joshua Halberstam is a writer in New York City. His books include “Schmoozing: The Private Conversations of American Jews” (Berkley Publishing Group, 1997) and “Everyday Ethics” (Viking Press, 1993). He teaches courses in philosophy at Teachers College, Columbia University.


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